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Government Websites Need More than a Facelift

Technology use in government is on the rise, but a lot of tech isn't being implemented to its full capacity. Often, governments invest in changes that offer aesthetic improvements but lack the fully integrated back-end connectivity to be truly transformative.

It’s an exciting time for gov tech. We’re past simply making paper forms available online and are approaching a world where connected systems improve life for residents and government employees alike.
While the technology to optimize and connect city services exists, most places haven’t yet implemented it. Often, governments invest in changes to their websites that offer aesthetic improvements but lack the fully integrated back-end connectivity to be truly transformative.
We shouldn’t accept surface-level improvements where full transformations would have meaningful impact. While superficial design changes can improve user experience, full-scale back-end updates are what will revolutionize the way people experience government.

The Limits of Front-End Design

First-generation government websites were usually built to reflect government hierarchy: You had to know where to look to find what you needed. Cities and states with upgraded websites have improved their front-end design, making it easier and more intuitive for constituents to find what’s important. 
But these websites often fall short in the back end. For example, a website might require a user to complete a process in person or by emailing a PDF. It might link to a third-party site for online transactions like paying a parking ticket or reporting a pothole. 
That’s not an ideal experience for a few reasons:
  • Paper forms and PDFs mean redundant data entry by constituents and city staff, which wastes time and increases errors.
  • Third-party portals mean users must learn to navigate each different website, which increases complexity.
  • When multiple websites are involved, multiple vendors manage login credentials, which means more chances for data insecurity.
Life becomes easier when the front end and back end are integrated. Technical constraints have prevented that integration in the past, but that’s starting to change. 

End-to-End Integration

Want to see end-to-end integration in action? The Consolidated City of Indianapolis and Marion County offers residents a homestead deduction on their taxes. Until recently, the process of getting that deduction worked like this:
  • Homeowner fills out 100-question paper application.
  • Homeowner submits application to the city (via email or in person).
  • County worker verifies information and calls homeowner in the event of inconsistencies.
  • County worker manually enters data into the system.
  • Homeowner gets a response within five to 10 business days.
Notice the redundancies: County staff must re-enter data from a form into the database, adding time and introducing extra opportunity for error.
To eliminate this problem, the city/county digitized the form so residents could complete it online. The front end validates their information in real time as it’s entered. It only asks constituents questions relevant to the county and to their situation, skipping those that don’t apply. The digitized form then sends the application to a request management tool for county staff to track, assign and approve. The front end and request management tool are directly integrated with existing back-end systems for address verification and record keeping.
Today, residents often receive a response to their homestead deduction applications within 20 minutes. As significant as this change is, though, it’s just a stepping stone toward what gov tech can look like.

Connected Systems, Proactive Services

In the scenario above, once the resident enters their information, it can be verified against existing data. That’s cool, but it also signifies that in many cases, the local government already has all the information the resident provides. 
The future of gov tech, then, is a system smart enough to handle these tasks proactively. If you live in Indianapolis and own property there, the city/county technology should be intelligent enough to suggest the appropriate homestead deduction and complete the form based on your authenticated user profile. When you're ready to apply, all you need to do is click “submit.”
Today, most local governments function as dozens of discrete entities. Each agency or department has its own back-end technology, which is why you have to enter all your information every time you want to interact with your local government.
Imagine, instead, if a person logged onto their city’s website and it said something like, “Hi, Charles. It’s going to be a cold winter. Want to hear about payment plans from People’s Gas?” His profile indicated that he met certain income criteria. The city’s system connected that information with the time of year and the gas company’s payment plan options to provide him with serious value.
That’s not just convenient; it can prevent someone from falling behind on utility payments and risking a service shutoff. In harsh winter weather, that can be life-altering. 
This is where government technology is going. A unified platform, resting on top of agency-specific systems, that allows those systems to talk to each other and link relevant information. From a constituent’s point of view, it will look like local government that not only meets, but also anticipates, their needs.
Branson Pierce is the chief design officer for CityBase, a government technology company building solutions to make government more accessible and efficient.